Jewish-Christian Borders - An Excerpt from Near Christianity by Anthony Le Donne
"In my experience—in my conversations with 'unbelieving neighbors'—I have learned that Christianity appears quite differently from the borders." (19)
In today's excerpt from Near Christianity, Anthony Le Donne, associate professor of New Testament at United theological seminary and cofounder of the Jewish-Christian Dialogue and Sacred Texts Consultation, reflects on our relationships with those on the peripheries of Christianity.
One of the realities of pilgrimage is border crossing. Whether it is a physical or spiritual journey, borderlands must be navigated. Boundary markers must be interpreted. Some borders suggest new life, progress, or possibility. My memory of the concrete tunnel that opened up to Candlestick Park was like that. Upon entry, that concrete tunnel was only nostalgic in that it promised something better, greener beyond. Or you might know what I mean if you’ve ever ascended the hills of Bodega until the visual barrier is broken, revealing the Pacific Ocean. Those rolling hills boast their own beauty. But they also border something greater.
Other borders suggest insecurity, anxiety, or painful departure. Life after a lover’s death is such a border crossing. Or imagine the return home of a daughter who has been estranged for too long from her parents. Some borders have metal detectors and checkpoints and offer no guarantees of easy passage. Some are literal barriers, all but impassable.
Borders can take many forms; they can be physical, temporal, cultural, or a combination of many forms. Most of the borders I discuss in this book are religious in nature or at least have a religious dimension. Most are conceptual, rather than physical. But I will begin with a seemingly mundane border: a sidewalk.
I sat in the passenger seat of Larry’s Prius en route to Temple Emanuel. Larry Behrendt is a friend of mine, Jewish, actively invested in the well-being of his Christian friends, and an all-around good guy. I had been to many synagogues, but never his. There was nothing particularly sacred or strange about the journey. Judging by the tenor of our conversation, we could have been going to a little league game. It didn’t feel like much of a pilgrimage. We were in Beverly Hills, after all—not exactly a cross-cultural experience for a kid raised in wine country. Yet as we crossed the border from sidewalk to synagogue, an unmistakable boundary marker waited for us.
In front of a lovely little chapel was an armed guard. Standing erect, blue uniform, head shorn, expressionless. I don’t know enough about firearms to know the model of his gun. I do remember being impressed—and a little disturbed—by the display. I decided to say nothing for the moment.
My first experience at this Reform synagogue was a Buddhist-styled session of meditation. The rabbi guided us in a practice called “mindfulness,” wherein we were encouraged to be present and observant within ourselves. I attempted to focus on something other than the man with a gun just beyond that threshold. I am not inordinately squeamish about guns; it just seemed odd in a place of worship. Did this armed guard provide comfort or distraction for my fellow meditators?
After the meditation we left the chapel across the same sidewalk and walked by the same guard. The Sabbath service would be in another building across the street.
I turned to Larry, “What’s up with him?” Larry doesn’t often play coy, but he did today.
“The armed guard.”
“He’s here to protect us from our enemies.”
Larry’s eyes twinkled just enough to let me know that he had more to say on this topic. We turned the corner and walked into the foyer; there was another armed guard with a similar uniform and posture. Worship was about to begin, so our dialogue about borders would have to wait.
As we entered the synagogue, I reflected on the history of Christians and Jews. For centuries, reaching back to the violence of medieval Christianity, Jews have lived with Christian neighbors who were not invested in their well-being. Indeed, too many of these Christians deliberately intimidated their neighbors and worse. Jews and Christians generally get along these days, but this positive development is relatively recent. Even so, the intimidating shadow of Christianity still looms large.
Consider the population disparity. There are now over 2.7 billion Christians. Contrast this with 14 million Jews worldwide. We measure Jews in millions and Christians in billions. Even if only one out of every hundred Christians were anti-Semitic (1 percent of 2.7 billion), this would make for 27 million anti-Semitic Christians in the world. Even if my low estimate is close to the mark—and this doesn’t even include non-Christian anti-Semites— there are far more anti Semites in the world than there are Jews.
So Larry says “to protect us from our enemies.”
In my experience, Jews tend to respond differently to religious borders than do Christians. Jews have a long history of living near neighbors who curse them. This is bad enough. But when your neighbors outnumber you on all sides, such curses can become perilous. History—even recent history—suggests that many of these neighbors wish the Jews’ extinction. So sometimes armed guards are employed. Extinction is not a necessary concern for Christianity. We may have unhealthy denominations, but there is no danger of Christianity’s imminent demise. In contrast, Jewish extinction is a real-world concern for many Jews. There are many different elements that feed this concern, including Israel’s political instability and intermarriage with non-Jews.
The cultural memory of the Holocaust looms large, and its impact is still unfolding. Too much was lost—too many families, too many people—for Jews not to think hard about the possibility of Jewish extinction. Related to this concern, although this might be difficult for many Christians to hear, is the problem of Christian evangelism. For many Jews, the Christian drive to seek converts is a threat. It may not be the only factor, but it is related to the worry nonetheless.
Therefore, many Jews relate to borders differently than do Christians. More to the point, there is little comfort in the knowledge that these borders are populated by Christians. I take no pleasure in saying this, but a great many people have been trampled over in the name of Christian pilgrimage. Countless Jews have encountered Christians who are on some crusade, quest, or adventure. Even when we have good intentions—and this cannot be assumed—we Christians leave a heavy footprint when we travel…
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